Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lesson of the Evil


Takashi Miike is a force of nature. Still only in his mid-fifties, he’s directed almost a hundred features. He’s slowed down a bit in the last half-decade, only making two or three films a year. Compared to, say, 2001 when he directed eight movies, including three bona fide classics (‘Visitor Q’, ‘Ichi the Killer’ and ‘The Happiness of the Katakuris’), and presumably didn’t eat or sleep let alone consider taking any annual leave. He’s also brazenly confident in any number of genres: horror, comedy, thriller, western, musical, legal dramas, samurai epics, road movies, and children’s films.

Yes, he’s prolific and tirelessly creative, is Takashi Miike. He’s also no stranger to controversy. In fact, controversy probably hangs out with him most evenings, getting drunk and egging him on.

‘Lesson of the Evil’, made in 2012, is an adaptation of a novel by Yusuke Kishi, an award-winning crime writer who has had several of his works filmed in his native Japan (so far only ‘The Crimson Labyrinth’ has been translated for the English-language market). Whether Kishi’s novel, published in 2010, treats its subject matter with as much black humour as Miike brings to the adaptation is something I can only speculate on. 

It’s probably time, 200 words into this review, to cut to the chase and talk about what ‘Lesson of the Evil’ is about. And since it’s nigh on impossible to have any useful discussion to that effect without giving away critical plot points germane to the sustained finale that occupies the last forty minutes or so, let’s hoist the jolly SPOILER ALERT (applies for the remainder of the article).

‘Lesson in the Evil’ is set at a private school where, despite their entitled lifestyles, the students experience bullying and, in one case, sexual harassment, while the staff try to determine how an exam-cheating system is being operated. Snivelly physics teacher Tsurii (Mitsuro Fukikoshi) intuits that smartphones are being clandestinely used to email questions to conspirators. Popular English teacher Hasumi (Hideaki Itō) favours using a cell phone jammer, which the principal objects to on the grounds of two wrongs (the jammer being illegal) not making a right. The scene marks out Hasumi as kind of cool, ready to beat the cheats at their own game and throw away the rule book in order to do so. His second intervention into the lives of the student body is when he assists winsome student Miya (Erina Mizuno) to turn the tables on a blackmailer who is demanding certain favours. Miike takes a slow burn approach with these early developments, with Hasumi shaping up as a sharp-witted guardian angel type, albeit one with unorthodox methods. That he’s a good-looking mo’fo’ with a nice line in rock star cool only makes him more appealing as a protagonist. 

Then, with the suddenness that’s one of the trademarks of a Miike film, the rug is pulled, bodies start piling up and Hasumi enthusiastically reciprocates Miya’s affections, blackmailing fellow paedophile teacher Kume (Takehiro Hira) for the use of his swish apartment in which to conduct their assignations. I’m not sure which is greater: the chutzpah, the hypocrisy or the offensiveness potential to any audience member who isn’t a fully fledged sociopath.

And the most contentious sequence is yet to come. What all of Hasumi’s machinations are leading up to is a high-school massacre for which he intends to frame Kume. In case you’re wondering what all of this is in the service of, there’s a subplot exploring Hasumi’s past and his motivations. Maybe “exploring” isn’t the right word: Miike’s approach is more impressionistic. He gives us a specific reference to Goethe’s ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, repeatedly uses ‘Mack the Knife’ on the soundtrack (in both English and Japanese versions), makes a big point of Hasumi having spent some time in America, and lets the audience extrapolate from there.

Ah, yes. Hasumi’s time in America. Let’s pause here to consider a cultural comparison. School shootings are non-existent in Japan; cursory internet research before I sat down to write this review suggests that the last time a school massacre occurred was in Osaka in 2001. The assailant killed seven children and thirteen others and two teachers with a knife. I won’t bother linking to it, but a list on Wikipedia of school shootings in America takes us from 1764 to the present day and demonstrates that nutcases cut loose with firearms on American campuses with depressing frequency, the worst being the Virginia Tech massacre which cost 33 lives (not including the perpetrator’s suicide). In the year ‘Lesson of the Evil’ was made, there were 12 school shootings accounting for 42 deaths and 16 people injured. In Japan, gun ownership is rigidly controlled, handguns are verboten and even air guns require psychological testing, criminal checks and a labyrinthine degree of bureaucracy, not to mention having the police turn up every year to check you’re storing the thing properly and having to account for every single round of ammunition you fire. In America … well, let’s just say attitudes to gun ownership drift towards the opposite end of the scale.

In a particularly telling flashback, Hasumi attracts the attention of Dave (Daniel Genalo), a gentleman of fine American stock and a dedicated practitioner of murder. Eventually Hasumi terminates Dave because he simply enjoys killing too much. It’s tempting to interpret this scene as the satirical key to the film and take Hasumi’s high school massacre as a relocation to Japan of a uniquely American phenomenon. I have no idea what impact ‘Lesson of the Evil’ had on American audiences as I deliberately stay away from other reviews when I write up films for this blog, but even as an English viewer – where we don’t have school shootings (our national shame is paedophilia by privileged or celebrity abusers protected by successive Conservative governments) – I found the final stretch of ‘Lesson of the Evil’ brutally difficult to watch. Not because Miike renders the killings in documentary-style verité, but because he opts for a kinetic, hyper-stylised aesthetic reminiscent of the heightened black comedy of ‘Battle Royale’. But whereas ‘Battle Royale’ delivered its horrors within the context of dystopian satire, ‘Lesson of the Evil’ simply portrays, albeit in as iconic a manner as possible, a lunatic with a shotgun, stalking the corridors and classrooms of a school, intent on killing every one of its pupils.

I’ve seen plenty of black comedies that are so near the knuckle, they’ve practically gouged the knuckle out. I’ve laughed at questionable things and questioned myself for doing so. I’m no stranger to laughter in the dark. ‘Lesson of the Evil’ goes beyond laughter in the dark. It laughs in the stunned silence that follows something so awful that comprehension shuts down.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Frank


Frank Sidebottom is a name that will almost certainly be known to anyone who watched British TV during a certain era and had a taste for the offbeat. The alter ego of comedian and musician Chris Sievey, Frank was originally created to satirize bands’ hangers-on. When his papier-mâché-headed anonymity struck a chord with audiences, he was effectively upgraded to the band’s front man. That, right there, is a bloody great concept for a movie. The irony defines itself. You can hand the Sievey/Sidebottom story to any creative team with even the slimmest budget and tell them to get as self-reflexive with the material as they like. And when said creative team includes writer Jon Ronson, who served as keyboardist in Sievey/Sidebottom’s band, and wrote the whole experience up for a cracking newspaper article titled “Oh blimey!”, there’s no reason – no reason at all – for ‘Frank’ not to be brilliant.

And yet … and yet …

The first problem is that Ronson’s script, co-written by Peter Straughan (who had previously adapted Ronson’s book ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ into a not-particularly-good movie) completely fictionalises Frank, transplants him from England to Ireland, and shifts the timeline from the 80s/90s to a contemporary setting. The Sievey/Sidebottom story is a real peach; in this fictionalised version, Frank without his creator is merely a cipher, even with a capable performance from Michael Fassbender to enrich the character. The decision to surround him with a group of generally impenetrable, unlikeable and unfleshed-out bandmates – including Scoot McNair, Carla Azar and Maggie Gyllenhaal, wrestling with some of the most thankless material she’s ever been given – is distancing, although some of the band’s dynamics allow for a send-up of creative friction and artistic pretentiousness. Not necessarily a fault – but a too-familiar device – is the introduction of an “everyman” figure into their milieu in order to act as the audience’s eyes and ears.


Said everyman is Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) – in a film based on a true story that’s nonetheless totally fictionalised, the use of Ronson’s actual name for his fictive surrogate is somehow more annoying than it ought to be – a young man living a banal existence in Dublin, still living with his parents, holding down a soulless day job and trying to compose songs in his spare time. Director Lenny Abrahamson conjures some effective early scenes as he sketches in Jon’s day-to-day life and hilariously demonstrates just how fuck awful his compositions are. A contrivance sees Jon co-opted into Frank’s band as keyboardist (remember the “drummers curse” in ‘This is Spinal Tap’? ‘Frank’ recycles the gag but with keyboardists and without it being quite so funny). This leads to a long mid-section in which the band hole up in the middle of nowhere to record their new album, and to give him his dues Abrahamson gets a good few belly laughs out of the increasingly desperate lengths an already up-themselves bunch of people go to in order to kick-start the muse.

Jon never really steers the audience particularly close to Frank, though, and the character arc that the script requires him to describe – puppyish naïf to egomaniacal prick – never quite feels earned. Likewise, the revelations about Frank in the last third, when the scene’s shifted to America and it suddenly feels like you’re watching an entirely different film. ‘Frank’ makes a number of tonal lurches during its relatively short running time. Much could have been rescued if Abrahamson had embraced the material’s absurdity Monty Python stylee rather than trying for the kind of deadpan black humour that, say, Ben Wheatley achieved so effectively in ‘Sightseers’ but which often falls flat here.


Still, when ‘Frank’ hits the marks, it does so winningly. Fassbender holds the whole thing together using just vocal inflections and body language. Gleeson makes a character who is arguably the film’s biggest waste of space curiously sympathetic. James Mather’s cinematography ought to receive Valentine’s Day cards, so beautifully does he evoke his locations, lingering on clusters of small details just long enough. I’ve not seen any of Abrahamson’s earlier films (I have it on good authority that ‘Garage’ is some kind of microbudget classic) and I fully intend to rectify that. For all its problems, ‘Frank’ has some genuine offbeat talent behind it.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A Million Ways to Die in the West


In 2006, M. Night Shyamalan cast himself in a supporting role in his hugely divisive fairy tale ‘The Lady in the Water’. His character was a messaniac figure destined to bring about world peace or a successful two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, I forget which. Anyway, Shyamalan’s character was the impossibly saintly MacGuffin upon which the entire drama of the film turned. And it earned him an unholy amount of brickbats, a goodly number of critics reckoning him misguided at best and an arrogant tosspot at worst.

In 2014, Seth MacFarlane cast himself in the lead role in his hugely juvenile western ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ so that he could bring about world peace or a successful two-state solution between Israel and Palestine snog Charlize Theron.

MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a self-deprecating sheep-farmer who lives with his parents, hates the wild west for its general ugliness and tendency to curtail lifespans, and finds his only solace in the arms of Louise (Amanda Seyfried). Well, he did for a while. The film opens with his wheedling his way out of a gunfight and earning Louise’s contempt for not acting like a man. Albert responds to rejection in the time-honoured male tradition of going out and getting drunk with his best bud. Said best bud is Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), a virginal shoe-seller whose hooker girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman) is a Christian who doesn’t believe in sex before marriage. This concept, incidentally, is the film’s best joke. Just so you know what level of sophistication we’re dealing with here.

While Albert is licking his wounds, notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood* (Liam Neeson) relieves a prospector of his gold and his life. Clinch is riding with his wife Anna (Charlize Theron) and his gang. Tired of Anna’s continual haranguing (how dare she imply that robbery can be done without murder?), he entrusts her to the care of Lewis (Evan Jones), his loyal but knuckled-headed right-hand-man, instructing them to hole up in the township of Old Stump while he and the boys investigate the prospector’s stake.


Lewis instigates a bar fight during his first night in town and is promptly arrested. Albert saves Anna during the fracas (though later events indicate that she’d have handled herself pretty fine) and the two strike up an unlikely friendship which shades towards romance. When they encounter Louise and her new suitor, the oleaginous Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, stealing the show), Anna colludes in a scenario which sees Albert challenge Foy to a duel. There’s only one problem: Albert’s scared shitless and doesn’t know one end of a gun from the other.

Actually, two problems. But y’all knew Clinch was going to reappear at a crucial moment, didn’t you?

‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ clings to a predictable sequence of narrative beats, the better to send them up. Clinch is a film-long riff on Jack Palance in ‘Shane’. Louise floats around dreamily in frills an a bonnet like Grace Kelly in ‘High Noon’. Ruth’s place of employment could well be the cathouse Hildy works at in ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’. Theron’s Anna is halfway between Jane Fonda’s Cat Ballou and the Waco Kid in ‘Blazing Saddles’ if the Waco Kid were a smoking hot blonde and didn’t have a drink problem.

Speaking of ‘Blazing Saddles’, the doffed hat scene is replicated, albeit not in honour of Randolph Scott but the withdrawing from a wallet of paper money (“take your hat off, boy, that’s a dollar bill!”), while the beanfeast transmogrifies here into an extended skit on bowel movements and the availability of cowboy hats.**


(To watch ‘Blazing Saddles’ straight after ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ is to laugh longer and harder at a film that runs a good twenty minutes shorter.)

MacFarlane’s film has two things working against it, and they work against it for much of its running time. The first is MacFarlane as actor. Whereas Albert in ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ and John in MacFarlane’s previous film ‘Ted’ are both emotionally retarded loser douchebags, John is played with a kind of coach potato rumpled charm by Mark Wahlberg. MacFarlane gives a one-note performance that lacks any of Wahlberg’s grace notes. (And seriously, folks, when “not as good as Mark Wahlberg” emerges as a critical touchstone, you know something is awry.) The second problem is the script’s dependency on scatological humour. The hat scene is low-brow but funny until MacFarlane decides to point the camera at what’s in the hat. An early scene involving shadow puppetry recycles a gag that was only funny in ‘Ted’ because of the absurdity of having a plush teddy bear enact it. The nadir involves an enuretic sheep.*** 

Mercifully, the film has enough moments where the humour’s earned to leave it not without merit. The Edward/Sarah subplot hits the target more often than it misses; a running joke about the arbitrariness of death in the west sets up some cynically effective sight gags; an unexpected musical number about moustaches turns a generic barn-dance into a triumph of kitsch; an Indian encampment scene in which Albert takes hallucinogenics and “sees” his future combines Francis Bacon and Salvador Dali (subject of art, Albert’s parents present a joyously foul-mouthed anti-Rockwell tableau); a ‘Back to the Future Part III’ homage earns kudos for how randomly its incorporated; and an end-credits coda proves spot-on bloody perfect.

‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ is no classic – in fact, at least half of its running time functions on the level of okayish – but when it works (particularly in its last half hour) it achieves a demented energy. Ironically enough, this generally happens when MacFarlane quits self-reflexively referencing other movies and does his own thing instead.



*I told you it was unsophisticated. 

**Seriously, I told you. 

***See above.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Wrestler


I’ve heard it said that with ‘The Wrestler’ (2008) and ‘Black Swan’ (2010), Darren Aronofsky essentially made the same film. Both are expositions on the nature of performance and the gruelling offences against the human body that make said performance possible; both measure physical punishment against psychological deterioration; both assess the adulation of the crowd in terms of dysfunctionalism in “real” life. ‘Black Swan’ rigorously addresses these themes within the middle-to-upper-class realm of ballet, embracing a quasi-surreal aesthetic that, as Bryce Wilson put it, is “as if Roman Polanski and Dario Argento teamed up to remake ‘The Red Shoes’.”

‘The Wrestler’ works out its issues of fame, falsity, failure and flamboyant performance in the ring. If ‘Black Swan’ embraces the gleaming marble façades of theatre and concert hall and the shiny mirrored surfaces of the barré, ‘The Wrestler’ inhabits a milieu of trailers, sports halls, strip clubs and shitty bars. ‘Black Swan’ is the more psychologically penetrating film, ‘The Wrestler’ the more honest. Once you’ve seen them both, it’s hard to critically intuit one without filtering your perceptions through the aesthetic of the other.

Moreover, both generated their frisson from existing cinematic touchstones. As Bryce notes, ‘Black Swan’ comes across as Powell & Pressburger’s deliciously morbid fantasia stuck in a blender with ‘Repulsion’ and ‘Suspiria’. ‘The Wrestler’ has an even more immediate precursor.

In 1988, respected cinematographer Michael Seresin made his only directorial feature with ‘Homeboy’, a boxing film from a script by its star, Mickey Rourke. A glacially paced, downbeat character study, ‘Homeboy’ starts with twenty-something boxer Johnny Walker (the naming of its protagonist after a fucking horrible brand of whisky is the movie’s only real flub) moving to a coastal town and trying to put his boxing days behind him. He’s been diagnosed with brain damage, and one wrongly placed punch could kill him or turn him into a vegetable. As he struggles to form a useful life outside the ring, the promise of romantic fulfilment with carnival performer Ruby (Debra Feuer) is threatened by the svengali-esque attentions of crooked promoter Pendergrass (Christopher Walken). The denouement, in a film that plays like ‘Raging Bull’ deconstructed by Charles Bukowski, is deeply ambiguous. Feuer was Rourke’s wife at the time; they separated the following year.

To make things even more meta, Rourke had been an amateur boxer from 1964 to 1973, winning his first match as a flyweight at the tender age of 12. In 1991, disaffected with his acting career, he returned to the ring as a professional boxer, winning six of his eight fights and drawing the other two. He suffered for it, though, and some disastrous reconstructive facial surgery turned him from the pugnaciously handsome actor of ‘Angel Heart’ to the puffy-lipped, beaten-up Mickey Rourke that we’ve known for the last couple of decades.

To make things even more meta still, ‘The Wrestler’ establishes clear parallels with ‘Homeboy’, but punctures that film’s punch-drunk seriousness of purpose. Boxing is boxing. Wrestling is, at best, white trash performance art. An early seen in ‘The Wrestler’ has antagonists pair off as their bouts are announced and discuss what moves they’re going to use and how best to pander to the crowd. They hug before and after fights. Even in the climactic scene, with Rourke’s has-been Randy the Ram seemingly on the verge of a seizure in the ring, his supposed antagonist, earlier seen punching him in the face and slamming him onto the canvas, nervously whispers “Ram, are you okay?” in an almost frightened voice.


If the parallels with ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Homeboy’ are immediately apparent, so is Aronofsky’s familiarity with the established narrative beats of the sports film: the broken down old timer who used to be someone; the inability to function effectively outside of his sphere of competition; the long-shot final bout. But in Aronofsky’s hands these standard issue tropes are deconstructed and examined, and he sure as hell doesn’t give us the inspirational speechifying or the rousing and redemptive finale. Small details, which are accreted from the outset, that establish Randy’s downward spiral from his glory days of the late 1980s. The credits sequence, all ’80s cock rock, lurid green titles, sports magazine headlines and ticket stubs, establish that our hero had it all back in the day. The montage abruptly fades to black, then fades in on the Ram, in late middle aged, slumped over a child’s desk in a school classroom (he’s reduced to bouts in a school sports hall), a bright yellow toy truck positioned so that it occupies the frame more commandingly that Rourke’s slumped figure. Aronofsky withholds the “twenty years later” credit for several seconds, and probably could have lost it altogether: the visual tells us all we need to know.

Seconds into the film and it’s abundantly clear that the director knows exactly what he wants. The next three cuts focus on swathes of yellow, enough to cast aspersions of the perceived masculinity of Randy’s milieu, after which Aronofsky is savvy enough to discard colour-specific cues rather than swamp the film with them. He focuses, instead, on casually observed details of Randy’s day-to-day life, details that exist in stark contrast to his stage image: his hearing aid; his bafflement during a Nintendo match with a neighbourhood kid that Call of Duty 4 is a cooler and more sophisticated game; his hair dyed and crimped in silver foil during a visit to a hairdresser who is less than impressed by his long-faded fame; his sheepish acceptance of a bollocking at his day job by a wimpy, short-arse supervisor; his equally sheepish attempts to win the affections of an exotic dancer at a seedy club he frequents; and his not-much-more-effective overtures to his estranged daughter.

On which note, here’s to the actresses who essay the trickiest and most thankless roles in ‘The Wrestler’. Marisa Tomei plays middle-aged stripper Pam: first seen being harangued about her age by some asshole college jocks, she’s working a horrible job in a shitty dive purely to provide a start in life for her nine-year-old son. As Randy’s daughter Stephanie, Evan Rachel Wood provides a study in bristling teenage angst erected as a barrier against all the times her father wasn’t there for her; and in what is still a career-best, Wood’s character tentatively allows the defences to come down only for the Ram to screw things up just when reconciliation is feasible.


The comparisons between the Ram’s “profession” and Pam’s are telling (the rhyming nature of their names is surely no coincidence). Her gyrations on the pole, eyes glazed and a bored expression on her face even as she tries to fake a salacious look at her beer-addled, pick-up-driving audience, are as phoney as the Ram’s performances in the ring. The falsity takes their toll on both of them, but at least Pam doesn’t self-mutilate (an early scene has Randy secrete a razor blade on his person; he uses it not to nobble an opponent but to cut his own forehead open, blood being what the punters want); nonetheless, she is unable to see Randy as anything other than a customer, and the only meaningful relationship she seems to have is with her nine-year-old son. Their relationship is in stark contrast to Randy and Stephanie’s.

Aronofsky doesn’t force any of these parallels. He utilises an almost documentarist style, establishing character and location, and lets the narrative unspool at its own pace. As noted earlier, small details carry most of the weight. A stylistic device used consistently through the movie has the camera follow Randy as he goes about his day (I’m convinced Rourke’s face has far less screen time than the back of his head), so that Randy getting in the ring comes to seem no more or less significant than Randy going to work in a warehouse, Randy going to work on a deli counter or Randy walking into a shitty bar. And mostly Randy ends up adopting a persona in each of these milieus in order to get through to the end of the fight, the end of the shift or the end of the day.

In Roeg and Cammell’s counter-culture classic ‘Performance’ rock star/dissipate Turner (Mick Jagger) states his raison d’etre as “the only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness”. What Randy the Ram’s final performance achieves is left ambiguous, but the build-up makes it achingly clear that, for him, a crowd chanting his name and some doughy fan gushingly seeking an autograph is as good as it’s ever going to get.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Still the Enemy Within


When I reviewed ‘Pride’ in September last year, I ended by wondering when British cinema was going to deliver the great film on the miners’ strike, be it a Scargill biopic, a conspiracy thriller based on Seamus Milne’s ‘The Enemy Within’, an underdog drama about the vastly outnumbered Nottinghamshire striking miners or Leicester's heroic “dirty thirty”, or a no-punches-pulled visceral account of the police brutality at Orgreave. I opined that we have the filmmaking talent for any of these to be a viable project. Instead, British cinema treats the strike – surely the mostly significant socio-political protest of the last half decade – as some sort of colourful backdrop to comedy-dramas like ‘Brassed Off’, ‘Billy Elliott’ and the aforementioned ‘Pride’.

This year marked the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the strike, and we’re still no closer to the definitive feature film on the strike. What we do have though, and kudos to everyone who chipped in to help crowdfund it, is Owen Gower’s rock solid documentary ‘Still the Enemy Within’. The title, like that of Milne’s book on the government’s calculated campaign to undermine the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) references Margaret Thatcher’s heinous comment, post-Falklands conflict, that “Galtieri and the Argentians were the enemy without, Arthur Scargill and the miners are the enemy within”, sixteen words that manage to be xenophobic, imperialist, anti-union, anti-industry, anti-community and anti-workers’ rights. But we’re talking about Margaret fucking Thatcher here, so what else was to be expected?

‘Still the Enemy Within’ tells a clear-sighted story across its two hour running time, establishing a through line and maintaining a steady, informative pace. There are a few digressions, such as interviewee Norman Strike (who carried his birth certificate around for most of the strike after coppers started giving him grief because they thought he was taking the piss when asked his name) being invited onto cult BBC music show ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’: he comes marching out in the middle of a set and delivers a barnstorming speech only to be told later that the microphone hadn’t been switched on! By this time he’s repaired to the green room where, as he notes, “you want a Southern Comfort and Coke, you can have it; you want a bottle of whisky, you can have it”. As can be imagined of a man on strike and deprived of income for 35 weeks at this point, he goes to town on the free booze and drunkenly tells Jools Holland to fuck off at the end of the evening.

Another little discursion features Mike Jackson and basically recaps the story that inspired ‘Pride’, only ten minutes rather a hundred and twenty. Still, Jackson is engaging and passionate in interview, his wry humour shining through. In fact, humour is more prevalent than one might expect, particularly during the discussions of how flying pickets evaded police, including men hiding in car boots (police were especially vigilant for cars containing more than one adult male) or cutting across woodland dressed as joggers; Strike and his fellow contributors still seem chuffed, three decades on, that these schoolboy bits of field craft actually worked. Elsewhere, though, the humour is replace by a palpable anger. A discussion on the Nottinghamshire miners who continued working and who were shielded by a police presence which virtually sealed off the county hit home powerfully: Nottinghamshire’s been my home all my life and it’s still referred to as “scab county”. (I drove round some mining villages recently, researching an article for an anthology, and took a photograph of the headstocks at Blidworth, a village that was cut off and laid siege to by riot police in May 1984; I posted the picture on a mining heritage page on Facebook when I got home. The first comment was “Notts scabs”.)

Fury also drives the account of Orgreave; a pitched battle was provoked by mounted police and misrepresented by the media. The BBC reversed the order that footage was shot, leading the public to believe the police were responding to aggression. The interviewees agreed that Orgreave was the moment that the dynamic shifted and the police became more thuggish in their behaviours. Paramilitary is a word that’s used more than once to describe their techniques.

Gower features a fairly small number of former miners telling their stories, but he’s served brilliantly: Strike is immediately likeable, a working class raconteur; Paul Symonds, on whom the film opens and closes, describes the conditions miners faced, and the claustrophobic descent of the cage, in measured but evocative language – I’d put a transcript of his account against any passage in Zola’s ‘Germinal’; Steve Hamill is as direct and powerful an orator as you’re likely to encounter; while Joyce Sheppard, Betty Cook and Anne Scargill prove that women fought on the front line of the dispute as fearlessly and ferociously as anyone else.

A criticism made in several reviews is that the documentary is one-sided. Hmmm, yeah. Whatever. Successive governments and the mainstream UK media have been telling their Scargill-as-Satan version of things for thirty years, so I reckon that side of the story’s been over-represented anyway. Moreover, as Harry Paterson proved in his seminal book ‘Look Back in Anger: The Miners’ Strike in Nottingham 30 Years On’, scabs seemed ill-disposed to account for themselves. Paterson tried to interview UDM (Union of Democratic Mineworkers: a pro-National Coal Board puppet union funded by Tory money) honchos Roy Lynk and Neil Greatrex. Neither were co-operative.

‘Still the Enemy Within’ follows its account of the strike by charting the decline of the coal industry plotted against free enterprise capitalism and yuppiedom. Gower brings things up to date with an overview of the banking crisis and the big lie of austerity that Cameron’s government is still bashing the British populace around the head with. The comparison barely needs making: Cameron is Thatcher v2.0 and the powers that be still have utter contempt for workers, unions and the underprivileged. The documentary ends on a thin note of hope as Symonds notes that “the future’s still up for grabs”. With an onrush of people joining the Labour Party in the aftermath of the general election and the groundswell behind Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign, here’s hoping that Symonds’s cautious optimism is justified.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Grand re-opening


Though the lock was rusty, the key still turned. Neil removed the padlock and pulled the door open. The light switch triggered a hum of electricity and a few flickerings from the bulb. Then it pinged on and remained. Dust was everywhere. Inevitable, really; Neil hadn’t set foot in the place for five months. He thought back to the last time. He’d been part way through a Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid retrospective: reviews of Paul Seydor’s book and the original cut of the Sam Peckinpah western. He’d meant to write about the 2005 special edition; about Brando’s ‘One Eyed Jacks’; about ‘The Left-Handed Gun’; about the ‘Young Guns’ movies.

Good intentions, Neil mused as he found a broom and started sweeping. There was a hell of a lot of tidying up to be done. Good intentions and the road to hell.

He’d never meant to leave. The blog was too enjoyable. What would the Christmas season be without a headlong dive into the filth and venality of the Winter of Discontent? Why else watch trashy exploitation movies other than to take the piss out of (uh, sorry, review) them?

But a project had come along. Something that turned out to be bigger and more time-consuming than he’d ever anticipated. Something that was still trundling towards fruition even as he opened the shutters and polished the windows and realised how much he’d missed writing for the blog. He wondered whether to lift the lid on said project in his first article for the relaunch of The Agitation of the Mind. But there was still work to be, still no confirmed release date.

Still, what’s a little secret between friends? Neil had been co-editing an anthology of new writing, a tribute volume to a favourite author. What had been perceived as a slim collection of poetry grew and redefined itself: poetry, short fiction, memoir, essays, travel writing. Photography. Artwork. Fifty contributors, from up-and-comers to bona fide ladies and gentlemen of letters. Full details to follow, Neil thought, crafting an introductory piece, a few words to preface the second coming of Agitation. All in good time. There’s plenty of movies to catch up with first.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid


It’s difficult to write about ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ without the retrospective fact that it was Sam Peckinpah’s last western throwing an almighty shadow over the proceedings. So much of it seems autumnal: Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens)’s slow, agonising, strangely poetic death scene, scored to Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’; Pat Garrett (James Coburn)’s foot-draggingly protracted odyssey in search of an outlaw he’d rather not apprehend, the already grizzled lawman seeming, in each successive scene, older and more weighed down not just with a sense of inevitability but a foreshadowing of how history will judge him; Billy (Kris Kristofferson)’s downward spiral from his myth-making act of showboating to an entire township during his escape from Lincoln County Jail to his dissipated solitary last bout of drinking as a dust storm swirls about him in the rundown enclave of Old Fort Sumner while Garrett’s odyssey draws inexorably towards its close.

So much of it seems tired: Garrett’s weary pauses between words (“the electorate … want you gone … out of the country”), each pause like a Harold Pinter play on Mogadon, entire worlds of reflection and self-accusation hanging on the ellipses; Baker reluctantly pinning his badge on as he goes to what will be his death; the sense of inevitability to the outcome of the duel between Alamosa Bill (Jack Elam) and Billy the Kid (both men cheat: the Kid cheats more effectively); the whiskery old forty-niner (Elisha Cook Jnr), whom Garrett’s de facto deputy John Poe (John Beck) mercilessly brutalises, reeling off a litany of things he’s tired of.

So much of it seems like a psychological self-portrait by its director: a meandering, woozy, often melancholy and sometimes frenziedly angry film that, in its most naked and agonising moments, turns against itself - pace Garrett catching himself in the mirror after shooting the Kid and turning his gun on his own reflection – in what almost seems like self-defeat.


And so much of it is pure Peckinpah. Sometimes organically so and in a good way: the children playing on a noose, much to the approbation of Bible-bashing deputy Bob Olinger (R.G. Armstrong), is reminiscent of the children giggling over the battalion of red ants that overrun the scorpion in the opening credits sequence of ‘The Wild Bunch’ (images of children bearing witness to the corruption of adulthood can be found in virtually every film Peckinpah directed). And sometimes in a forced, self-conscious manner: a minor character suddenly launching into ‘When the Roll is Called Up Yonder’ couldn’t telegraph the reference to ‘Ride the High Country’ more obviously if he’d worn a signboard; Garrett’s dalliance with a troupe of whores feels like it should occupy the same thematic territory as Pike Bishop (William Holden)’s moment of abject self-disgust towards the end of ‘The Wild Bunch’, but instead comes across as gratuitous and just plain absurd. 

Perhaps one of the reasons why ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ is both quintessentially a Peckinpah western and a sad (and slightly weird) leave-taking from the genre is the way it simultaneously corresponds to his grand overarching aesthetic (men outliving their times) and succumbs to pessimism in offering no magnificent rejection of, or rebellion against, it. In ‘Ride the High Country’, Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) are ageing men, one trying to remain honourable, the other living on his wits and trusting to a younger counterpart, both of them challenged by a new and viciously amoral breed of desperados (personified by the Hammond brothers). In ‘The Wild Bunch’, Pike Bishop’s group of outlaws are overtaken by history in the early years of the twentieth century, the First World War visible on the horizon while the bunch are still trying to make “one big score” as if it’s still 1880. The eponymous saddle tramp in ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’ makes an unexpected grab at the brass ring with a roadhouse on a stagecoach route only for the internal combustion engine to show up and ruin everything for him on every conceivable level.

But whereas Hogue is offered a lyrical, even somewhat satirical, götterdammerung, and Bishop’s bunch – having weathered internal tensions that almost tear them apart – are finally reconciled and take their long walk to celluloid immortality functioning as a tight and cohesive unit, Pat and Billy are antagonists throughout, never mind what kinship they might have shared at some distant point in the past. Even Judd and Westrum – Pat and Billy’s closest analogue in Peckinpah’s filmography – present a startling contrast. Judd is upright and moral, wanting to “enter his house justified”; Garrett is an ill-tempered man of violence who screws around with hookers behind his wife’s back. Westrum’s villainy is rueful; the Kid’s cold-blooded. (Westrum would never dispatch a man with a bullet to the back as Billy does J.W. Bell.) And finally Judd and Westrum are reconciled – as purposefully as the bunch are reconciled – and when they stride out for the iconic finale they are undoubtedly heroic.

There is no heroism in ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’. None whatsoever.



The Kid outlives his time when Garrett becomes sheriff of Lincoln County. Garrett tries to change with the times but can’t reconcile himself to the choice he’s made. Unlike Peckinpah’s other western protagonists, neither of them take a stand against the changing times. The Kid seals his own fate in returning to Fort Sumner, a decision occasioned by a vengeful imperative that’s almost immediately abandoned; indeed, when Garrett catches up with him, the Kid has done nothing more than sit around and wait for his executioner. Garrett seals his when he summarily pisses off various authority/political figures – Holland (Jack Dodson) and Norris (John Davis Chandler), associates of Governor Wallace (Jason Robards); and cattle baron John Chisum (Barry Sullivan) – and inadvertently sows the seeds of his own destruction: a political conspiracy that will, two decades after the death of the Kid, result in Garrett’s own assassination.

The death of Sheriff Baker remains film’s most famous scene. It’s occasioned by a visit to Black Harris (L.Q. Jones), who greets Garrett and Baker with a fusillade of bullets and refuses to give up the Kid even when Garrett gets the drop on him. During the shoot-out, in a moment that’s damn near overshadowed by the poignancy of Baker’s demise, Harris tells Garret, “Us old boys oughtn’t be doing this to each other.” 

Hum ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ all you like, quote the “Times have changed”/”Times maybe, but no me” exchange till you’re blue in the face, but Black Harris’s jeering accusation summarises everything you need to know about ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’. Sam Peckinpah’s final western.